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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 6

A History of Rocky Mountain House

by Hugh A. Dempsey

Descriptions of Rocky Mountain House

Scattered throughout the journals, reminiscences and letters of visitors and employees are many comments about the physical appearance of Rocky Mountain House. Some of these are detailed, but even a casual reference often indicated the existence of a certain building within the fort structure. Such information is useful and has been drawn together to give some indication of the appearance of the various forts.

Of Acton House, no description exists. Bird, who was at the site when it was established, commented only that "Three men employed sawing & the rest falling wood for building."1 On the other hand, Thompson and Henry both made a number of references to the first Rocky Mountain House. Thompson arrived at the fort on 11 October 1806, after having been away for four years, and "From this till the arrival of the Canoes the 24th, [the men were] employed repairing the House, white washing, etc."2 On 27 October, he "arranged the Men per houses" and on the following day he "Cleared the Shop, Garret, &c."

After the cleaning work was done, the men began repairing and rebuilding the fort. On 5 November they were "arranging the warehouse, making a stair" and on 21 November they "Arranged the South Bastion." On 26 January 1807, Thompson "Set the Men to work on an elevated half Bastion above the Gate. hauled the 4 Posts across." Construction continued until 3 March, when they "put it up to the proposed height" and two days later they "finished the half Bastion, roofed it." On 16 March they dug an ice house or glacière in which they placed "90 quarters of meat or 17 days' Provisions" and on 5 April Thompson noted the existence of another structure when he commented that his horse was "in the Stable."

When Rocky Mountain House was reopened in 1810, Henry provided detailed information about its location and use.

Our establishment at this place stands upon a high Bank on the North Side of the River; the situation is well adapted for defence in case of an attack from the Slave [Blackfoot] Indians, as our block Houses have a full command around the Fort for some distance. This spot was formerly covered with Aspen and Pine, which has been cut down for the use of the Place and now presents an open space for some considerable distance around. The frequent fires have aided much in clearing away the wood and Willows, so that we now have an extensive and grand view of the Range of the Rocky Mountains to the Southward of us, lying nearly about South West and apparently running about from West North West to South South East, directly opposite the Fort.3

Henry described the river as being 180 yards wide and "interupted by a strong Rapid, where the water rushes among some large stones, forming a cascade, the perpetual roaring of which is but a dismal neighbourhood in this solitary part of the World."4 He indicated the presence of coal about 300 yards below the fort, at a large bend, and "About one mile and a half (or as I measured it, 23 Minutes' walk upon the Ice) below the Fort, on the south side, is the entrance of Clear water River."5

Henry also kept a detailed account of his winter activities, including comments about repairs and renovations to the post. When he arrived on 7 October 1810, he "set a party of men at work taking off the old covering of the houses which was entirely rotten."6 During the first few weeks, the men lived in tents inside the fort until the buildings were habitable. He observed on 20 October that "Our repairs go on but very slow; the Old Buildings are rotten and falling to pieces, and the men are lazy in the extreme." The factor's house was finished by 26 October and Henry commented, "my room being finished, I removed from my Leather Tent, happy to get clear from that smoky dwelling, which I now gave up to the men for their residence."

As the repairs continued, Henry implied that the fort had more than one gate when he noted on 2 November that "the Rocky Mountains. . .we have fully in sight from the West Gate, laying to the East and West." Four days later he said, "My people finished the necessary repairs for the Winter, of the old Buildings, and a length of 20 feet for a Hen Yard." While he offered no explanation of the latter feature, Henry did have a flock of chickens at Terre Blanche post a few months earlier and probably brought them along.

Finally, on 7 November, Henry noted, "We now got our property into the Shop and Store House, and everything in good order." Now that the trading buildings were finished "The men began to work at the repairing of their own Houses, which are in a wretched state, and require to be almost renewed entirely." He noted that the fort contained three men's houses and on 15 November, "Dumont & co. finished their House." Two days later "Le Blanc, Doyen & co. finished their houses" and on the following day "The third and last of our men's Houses were finished this day and entered; all hands are now under cover this Winter." Henry was able to note with some satisfaction that "We now for the first time got the Fort cleared out. Chips, Wood, dirt, and Snow there had accumulated a great quantity since our arrival here."

During the months of November and December, Henry also recorded the existence of other sections of the fort. On 10 November he allowed some Indians "to remain in the Indian Hall" and five days later, "Battoche making his Bed in the Indian Hall." On 23 November, "Two men sawing Plank for Gates" and three days later they "began to make our Fort Gates. Took down the Flag Staff to arrange the haulyard." On 1 December, "Pichette finished the Fort Gates, and the Bastions were put a little in order; they are most wretched buildings for defence." The dwellings, too, were less than ideal for on 5 December, he observed "A strong wind all day and night which causes every chimney in the Fort to smoke, and renders our house very disagreeable."

Early in 1811, Henry was warned that the Gros Ventre or Fall Indians intended to attack Rocky Mountain House, so he began to reinforce the structure. "I repaired the bastions," he noted, "and made a number of loopholes in the shop and garret to provide protection for the Indian hall." If there was going to be trouble with the Indians, he expected it to start there. "We might have it in our power to destroy a good number of them before they could get out of the house," he wrote, "and then again the people who were to keep watch in the Bastions would receive them in the Fort while retreating towards the Gates. There again the Bastions bear full upon them, and as they were crowding through." Henry felt that many Indians could be killed while trying to get out of the fort and "the loop holes in the Bastions bear full upon them until they had retreated beyond the reach of our Guns."

Fortunately the Gros Ventre attack never came, for in spite of the defenses Henry doubted much the courage of my men.

As the spring of 1811 approached, the Gros Ventre Indians began to cause trouble again, so on 4 March, the men were employed "making loop holes in the Hall" and on the following day they were "working at the Bastions to receive the Fall Indians."7

When the Peigans and Gros Ventres arrived, the traders' worst fears were realized for on 15 March, they were "obliged to shut our Gates before Sun Set, to keep the Peagans off. Harranguer, a most terrible scoundrel. . .frequently attempted climbing over the Fort." On 2 April, "the Fall Indians set fire to our Stockades while the Flesh Eater [a Fall Indian] was sleeping in my Room but it was extinguished before any serious damage was caused."

By this time the fort was prepared for an attack and Henry placed his men in strategic positions. On 3 April he wrote: Four men with Guns in their hands in the Garret, which looked into the Indian Hall, where through loop holes the Indians could see men were stationed with Arms. In the shop were Six men well armed, to command respect while Trading, and at the same time could fire into the Indian Hall if necessary through loop holes I had made for that purpose. In the Hall were Six men armed with Clubs, knives, Pokers, &c.; to them I gave no guns, as I well knew they were ignorant how to handle them. . . . In each Bastion which commanded arround the Fort were placed two men. In the Block House over the Gate I placed four of the most resolute men I had who would have it in their power to do great execution from the commanding situation over the Gate. At the Gate were Two men armed with Guns, &c. whose business it was to attend in letting in the Indians to Trade. Probably because of these elaborate precautions, the Indians traded peacefully and decided not to attack.

After the Gros Ventres had gone, the men continued to work on the fort. On 17 April, they "began to square timber for two Small Houses" and on 24 April, men were "squaring timber for Block House." On 1 May, "Men squaring Posts for the Indian house;" two days later "Men took down the South East Bastion and Pichette and Dumont began to make a new one on Posts;" and on the following day "Bastion, digging holes." Judging from Henry's earlier oomments about the condition of the fort, the various buildings were all probably rebuilt or repaired before spring. The work may have continued through 1811, as Henry promised the Gros Ventres that "I would leave people here to pass the Summer."8

Nothing more was said about the buildings at Rocky Mountain House for several years. In 1813 they were abandoned but were reopened in 1818. Although the original structures must have been in bad condition after such a long abandonment, there is no evidence to indicate that new forts were built by either company. In fact, in the following spring the Hudson's Bay Company factor at Edmonton House was referring to his outpost as "old Acton House."9

5 Chimneys of Hudson's Bay Company fort at Rocky Mountain House, about 1920
(Glenbow-Alberta Institute).

After the amalgamation of 1821, the Hudson's Bay Company was alone at Rocky Mountain House and the post was maintained only during the winter months. There is no direct information to indicate whether the Hudson's Bay Company's Acton House or the North West Company's Rocky Mountain House was retained, although evidence would seem to support the latter post.

The earliest extant post journals for Rocky Mountain House are for the seasons of 1828-29, 1829-30, and 1830-31. They indicate that the ruinous condition of the fort kept the men busy repairing or reconstructing the buildings. As soon as they arrived at the fort on 16 October 1828, all men were put to work "repairing Fort, say putting some of the pickets, others making the Flooring in the houses."10 On 20 October, they were "puting up a Bastion" and the next day "puting up another Bastion." On 3 November, three men were "moding the houses" while on 17 November, two men were "Prepairing covering stick for Houses." Although there is no indication of major construction work, on 11 December, the men were "couvering the New House" before starting work on 15 December "cuting Fort Pickets."

Work continued into the new year, with "two men sawing and three choping logs for the Indian House" on 15 January 1829" On 5 February, "two men began to saw Pickets for a New Fort." It soon becomes apparent that the term "new" was used in an off-hand manner, for seldom did it indicate anything more than the repairing or replacing of part of the old structure.

On 9 March "two men sawing wood for flooring;" on the following day "one making Pegs for Fort Pickets;" and on the fourteenth "two arrenging the Fort Pickets." On 10 April, two men were "prepairing roof sticks," on 14 April the men were "puting up the Indian house" and covering it the following day. By 17 April they "got the Building [the Indian house] covered, a Part of the Garret made, and half of the chimney maid also." While this was being finished there were "two men making a Fort gate, one making doors for the Indian House" on 20 April.

By this time spring was almost upon them, so on 29 April they "Put the Iron work en cache" and on 4 May they "Got all the doors carried in the woods that the Indians myght not take the nail out of them." On the following day the post was closed for the summer.

When the men came back in October, 1829, they "Got the Indians house repaired" on 19 October, even though they had just built it during the previous winter. On 29 October, "the men Employed repairing the Blacksmith shop" while the rest of the month was spent trading and mudding the houses. As the spring of 1830 approached, two men were sent out on 13 March "choping logs for a Bastion" and work on the structure continued until the post was closed on 11 April.

At the beginning of the 1830-31 season, the men "imediately began to repairer our Fort" on 30 September and work apparently started on a new or renewed structure. On 1 October, "three men working at the New House;" on 7 October, "two men Choping logs for the new House, five covering it with Hay or Earth, two plaining Boards;" and on 12 October, "six men making two chimneys in the new House and four at the flooring." Although the building was not identified, it was not another new Indian house for on 15 October there were "six Men covering the Indian house, four working at the new House."

On 24 October, "sent two men for white mod, four men moding the Men's Houses and two days later two men were making the Flooring in the hall, six others moding the Houses."

A new phase of the work was started on 15 November when two men were put to work "choping Logs to make a bastion" and on 20 January 1831, there were "three men working at the Bastion." On 2 April, two men were "working, build a wach [watch] house" while on 14 April there were "three at the Bastion" and on 18 April "all Hand working at the Bastion."

In 1832, Rocky Mountain House was abandoned for two years and when it was reopened in 1834 it was in such bad condition that work was started on a new fort "a short distance form the old one"11 in January, 1835. The existence of a new structure is evident in the post journals of 1836-37 for there is practically no mention of repair or construction work taking place. When the winter party arrived on 1 October, they met "Louis Leblanc, who had been sent with two men in August to get the Fort put in order. all well."12

As the visitors began to arrive at Rocky Mountain House in the 1840s, they made a few comments about the post. The Reverend Mr. Rundle first visited the fort in 1841 but his only observation about individual buildings was a reference on 22 February to the Indian house.13 When he returned in 1845, he met Father De Smet and observed that the priest "would hold his [services] in a house." A number of other services were held in the "Hall" and "in Back Room" and on 23 October, Rundle had "Prayers in morning in Cree & Assiniboine in Big House (67 present)." For his part, Father De Smet had nothing to say about the fort.

Rundle was back at Rocky Mountain House in 1846 and on 30 October he held "Prayers at night in Louis' House." Some time later, on 22 April 1848, he was "Quartered in Louis' old house."

Artist Paul Kane's comments about the fort, which he visited in 1848, also were brief. He noted that it was "abandoned and left empty every summer"14 and was made of wood. Kane did, however, execute the only known painting of this fort. While it is only in the background of an Indian camp scene, the high palisades and bastions on at least two corners are visible.

Gladstone, who worked at the post intermittently between 1848 and 1861, made only passing reference to the structure. He recalled that he "worked in the boat yard"15 in the winter of 1849-50 and watched an Indian battle from "a gallery of the fort" in 1850-51. Another Hudson's Bay Company employee, however, was more detailed in his descriptions of Rocky Mountain House. Henry Moberly, who was in charge during the winter of 1854-55, stated that:

Mountain House was surrounded by the usual 28-foot pickets; with a block bastion at each corner and a gallery running all round inside about four and a half feet from the top, each bastion containing a supply of flintlocks and ammunition. Within was a square formed by the officers' houses, men's houses, stores and general trading-shops, a square between this and the pickets for boat-building, with forges and carpenter-shops, another square for horses and a fourth for general purposes.

There were two gates, the main gate on the north and a smaller one on the south side leading through a narrow passage the height of the stockade into a long hall. In this hall, amid much speech making, the Indians were received, the calumet passed and two glasses of rum of medium strength were given to each Indian. They were then turned out and the gates closed against them, the only means of communication being through two port-holes some twenty inches square opening through the stockade into a small blockhouse through which the trade in rum was conducted."6

Moberly's description of four squares within the single palisade is somewhat confusing, but he may have been trying to indicate the existence of small areas off the main square. These areas for a boat yard, horse yard and general yard would probably have opened onto the square. His description is supported by Gladstone's reference to a boat yard but is questionable in other points. The fact that Moberly was 91 years old when he collaborated with a writer to prepare his reminiscences might also account for some discrepancies.

When the Reverend Mr. Woolsey visited Rocky Mountain House in 1857, he noted that "The Fort is situated on an eminence, and though irregularly formed, is somewhat quadrangular. . . . It is only a winter post."17

In the following year, Dr. Hector of the Palliser expedition visited the fort on three occasions. During the first visit on 14 January, he noted the fort to be "in a very ruinous condition, owing to its being abandoned every summer when it is generally adopted as a residence by several families of Indians, who prove anything but improving tenants."18 He said the fort was "a roughly constructed group of log huts, consisting of a dwelling house, stores, and workshops, and all surrounded by a palisade. The woodwork is very old and rotten, and the whole place is tumbling to pieces."19

His location of the fort was precise when he observed that:

The terrace level on which the fort stands is 20 feet above the river, and in proceeding back a slight descent is made in the "muskegs", which lie along the base of a second terrace like the first, composed of shingle. . . . On reaching the hill [about two miles west of the fort] I found it to rise about 80 feet above the second terrace level, and nearly 150 feet above the river.

Three hundred yards below the fort there is a rapid in the river channel, and fall of three feet caused by ledges of greenish sandstone that cross the stream. A few hundred yards below this the river receives a large tributary, called Clearwater River.20

When Hector approached the area, he travelled on the river "upon beautiful clear ice, but which is full of open holes from the rapidity of the current, at one of which, caused by a rapid, we had to leave the river and pass through the woods, when we emerged in a large plain on which stood the fort."21 He noted that the river opposite the fort was 130 yards wide, and when at its lowest was from 2 to 3 feet deep.

Because of the condition of the fort and the hostility of the Blackfoot, the place was closed in the spring of 1861. Before they left, the men built a block house about four miles downstream to use as a cache. When the post was reopened in 1864, plans were approved for the erection of a new fort. Work on the structure probably started in 1866, although the men were cutting timber and squaring logs for the fort during the previous winter. John B. Tyrrell, who visited the site in 1886, commented that the distance from the new fort to the old one was "about 50 chains farther up the river in the southern portion of the N.E. 1/4 of the S.W. 1/4 of Sect. 17, Tp. 39, Range 7, West of the 5th Meridian."22

The post journals for 1866-68 began in May, with "Paquet and McCleod working at the new fort"23 and on the following day they were "working at the gates for new fort." They put up a gate on 26 May, "the last gate" on 28 May, and started to build the bastions on 1 June. On 14 June they "covered Mr. Hardisty's house" while two days later men were "putting up beams in the store." On 20 June they were "working at beams in Indian house and Interpreter house" and two days later they "put up the remainder of the beams to day into the Mens houses and Indian houses." On 25 June they were "working at the platings of dwelling houses;" on 9 July "Paquet and McCleod putting up couples in the wings of dwelling house; and on the thirteenth they commenced of the infilling of Bourgois house."

In the fall, after a summer of near starvation, a man was put to work "white washing Mr. Hardisty room" on 28 September and on 22 November, "Borwick and 2 men gathering stones for chimneys."

After the fort was finished, a number of persons visited the area. Father Lacombe made no comment about the appearance of the post, but the Reverend John McDougall noted in 1869 that it was "a large place in regular fort style, with stockades, bastions and citadel."24

Captain Munroe, whose reminiscences deal with the fort in the early 1870s, noted that when "all the gates were shut and locked, only one narrow door was used to let the traders go in and out."25 He also referred to a "trap door through which a buffalo robe was placed" and that "good were pulled back and forth on the buffalo robe," likely in the trading room. He said there was "a building inside where [the Indians] stayed" and during a troublesome period some Indians were hidden "in the basement of the Fort."26

When William Butler visited the fort late in 1870, he noted that it "stands in a level meadow which is clear of trees, although dense forest lies around it at some little distance."27 He was impressed with its defences and observed that "Bars and bolts and places to fire down at the Indians who are trading abound in every direction."28 Before the trading began, Butler said that all communication was cut off between the Indian room and the rest of the fort and the Indians were admitted through "a narrow passage into the trading-shop" where their pelts were handed through a wooden grating to the trader. When they had finished "out they go to the large hall" where others were waiting to trade.29

Another visitor to the fort during this period was Charles Horetsky, a Canadian Pacific Railway surveyor, who left no writings but photographed a group of Peigan Indians there in November, 1871. This was the earliest known photograph of the area and was probably taken inside the compound. Immediately behind the group is a sidewalk while behind that is a wall of squared timbers containing a shuttered window.

In January, 1873, W.S. Gore surveyed the Hudson's Bay Company land claim and established the precise location of Rocky Mountain House. Gore did not make a detailed drawing of the fort, but he did show a structure about 175 feet square with bastions on four corners and a garden on the southwest side.

Later in the same year, Jean l'Heureux, a French Canadian who lived with the Blackfoot Indians, made a detailed primitive sketch of the post. This drawing contains a wealth of information about the buildings and activities around the fort. His sketch, combined with Gore's survey and the archaeological excavation of 1966, provide valuable information about the last of the Rocky Mountain House forts.

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